YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The U.S. Embassy in Armenia publicly honored on Wednesday a young Armenian activist controversially prosecuted after publicizing alleged sexual and other abuse at a Yerevan boarding school.
Mariam Sukhudian, a leader of the environment protection group SOS Teghut, received the Women of Courage Award from Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch at a high-profile ceremony attended by Armenian politicians, civic activists and other public figures.
Speaking at the ceremony, Yovanovitch confirmed that the award is an appreciation of Sukhudian’s work at the public school for children with special needs located in Yerevan’s southern Nubarashen suburb. “When she arrived at Nubarashen Special School Number 11 and found neglect and abuse of children in its care, she acted to stop it … not for her own benefit, but for justice and the welfare of all children in Armenia,” said the ambassador.
A separate statement by the Embassy lauded the activist’s “courage” and “determination to act in order to right a wrong, in spite of the personal sacrifices it entailed.”
Sukhudian, 30, was among about a dozen young people who worked as volunteers at the boarding school in April-June 2008. In their subsequent public statements, they accused the school administration of failing to ensure the minimal standards of teaching and hygiene and routinely ill-treating and students.
They also cited some schoolgirls as alleging sexual harassment by one of their teachers. Sukhudian videotaped one of those girls, Diana Amirkhanian, and alerted Armenian media about her claims. The school administration strongly denied the allegations.
An ensuing police investigation cleared the school administration and the teacher in question, Levon Avagian, of any wrongdoing, saying that Amirkhanian withdrew her allegations. The police then accused Sukhudian of persuading the girl, who graduated from the school in June 2008, to falsely incriminate her teacher for “personal gain.” The activist was formally charged in August 2009 with “false denunciation,” a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
Facing a mounting public outcry against their actions, the police last October dropped that charge and replaced it by a less grave accusation of “slander” that carries heavy fines and a prison sentence of up to three years. Sukhudian said at the time that a police investigator offered to drop the criminal case altogether if she pleads for an official pardon. She said she rejected the offer.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service shortly before Wednesday’s ceremony, Sukhudian agreed that the award, the first of its kind ever given by the U.S. mission, is a clear signal to law-enforcement bodies dealing with the case. “That is certainly a message, in my opinion,” she said. “I think law-enforcement authorities are now entangled in this fabricated case and don’t know what to do.”
“I am still accused of slander because of speaking out against vicious practices at the Nubarashen school,” said Sukhudian. But she predicted that the accusation may well be dropped soon.
The case against Sukhudian has been condemned by Armenia’s leading human rights organizations. They say Armenian boarding schools, which are primarily supposed to educate for orphans and disabled children, have long been notorious for their lack of transparency, poor sanitary conditions and ill-treatment of students.
Sukhudian is also known for her active participation in street protests staged by SOS Teghut and other local environment protection groups against controversial mining projects devised by private firms and approved by the Armenian government.
“I’m a little ashamed of receiving this prize because in other countries [civic activism] is a normal thing,” the activist told RFE/RL. “People do it instinctively, not out of patriotism or because they have some supernatural abilities. I’m also a little ashamed that I will receive it not from my country but a foreign government.”